Giacomo Casanova (Heath Ledger) has a problem. The Roman Inquisition is after him, accusing him of perversion, debauchery and moral licentiousness. It is 1750s Venice, and the carousing Casanova has been working his way through the nunneries of Venice. The local Catholic inquisitor (Ken Stott) tells him that in order to save his depraved neck from the gallows, he must marry. So he sets his sights on the city's most eligible virgin (Natalie Dormer).
At the same time he meets the feisty proto-feminist Francesca (Sienna Miller) at a duel and falls in love with her. Because women are banned from publishing, Francesca is secretly writing female empowerment books under an assumed name and is betrothed to the famed porcine lard merchant Paprizzio (Oliver Platt). Her family led by her beautiful mother (Lena Olin) is poor and badly needs the money.
How can Casanova get the woman he loves, whilst staying away from certain death at the gallows? He begins a game of cat and mouse, hiding behind various identities to get what he really wants. But then a new inquisitor (Jeremy Irons) suddenly arrives from the Vatican, determined to clean up Venice, which he sees as the cesspit of fornication. He makes it perfectly clear that he's determined to arrest and hang Casanova, who is the ultimate threat to moral authority.
The film is fun and entertaining. It's also silly and hectic and remarkably sanitized - you won't find much naughty, bawdy sex-fuelled romping in this Casanova. Heath Ledger maybe nimble and rakish, but he's not that sexy, he's also rather bland and walks through this role. Casanova may be synonymous with sexual abandon, but in this version, he's duty-bound to please the ladies who swoon at his feet and is more concerned with finding true love than looking for his next sexual conquest.
There's no doubt Casanova is gorgeous to look at, in fact, the film is a little too gorgeous, with director Lasse Hållstrom over producing the film to within an inch of its life. The real location scenes of Venice are fabulous, but it all looks so clean and scrubbed, set-dressed and over-lit that it might as well be in a Hollywood studio. Costumes are elaborate and sumptuous, locations are grand and glorious, but it all strangely detracts from the realism of the story.
Over-production isn't the only problem. The script is downright embarrassing in places, and quirky one-liners that are meant to produce laughs fall flat with the weight of a lead balloon. The humour desperately needs the smart, twisty inventiveness that Tom Stoppard brought to Shakespeare in Love. This script is merely cheeky, never engaging us on any romantic or thematic level besides the general cuteness of it all.
Fortunately the fast-paced plot keeps the movie rolling along. Although Ledger isn't the actor I would pick to play Casanova - Colin Farrell or Jeremy Northam would have been a much better choice - he manages to be charming enough. Sienna Miller looks absolutely gorgeous and overflows with sparkly personality and fighting spirit, even though she never manages to create that much chemistry with Ledger. Olin is luminous as always as Francesca's mum, while Platt and Irons clearly have the most fun with their characters.
There's never a dull moment, even as the storyline gets more and more ridiculous, and there's always a jaunty tone that keeps us engaged. Most annoying is the endless irritating baroque music, that just keeps playing and playing, it distracts from the action and rises in the most inappropriate places.
In the end, Casanova plays more like a watered-down children's film, a type of PG thirteen sex farce, rather than the sophisticated, witty romp the filmmakers were clearly aiming for. It's a pity, because even though there's a real spark to all the silliness, with just a little bit more edginess, the film could have been another Tom Jones, a rather than a somewhat bargain basement, and second-rate Shakespeare In Love. Mike Leonard April 06.